OPINION: Scholz is already out of step with Germany – it’s time for a change of course

Olaf Scholz has seen his popularity ratings plummet in Germany amid the Ukraine crisis. After a promising start, the Chancellor has retreated into Merkel-era habits that no longer match the country he is leading, writes Brian Melican.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz
Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) at an April cabinet meeting in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/AFP/POOL | John Macdougall

Contrary to what many commentators are saying, what’s most surprising about Olaf Scholz’ precipitous fall in popularity is not how quickly it has happened – but rather how slowly.

Both among German voters and our allies abroad, Scholz had, until very recently, been given the benefit of the doubt to a very generous extent. After all, it would be simply unrealistic to expect him to magic away in six months Germany’s sixteen years of accumulated backlogs: a stalled green energy transition, the chronic unattractiveness of public service jobs, potentially crippling overdependence on strategic rivals Russia and China…

No one expected any of this to get solved overnight, and at least it looked like Scholz and his coalition were making a good start. So there was a huge amount of goodwill.

In what seems like an eternity ago, back in early February when the Ukraine war was still a “Ukraine crisis”, Joe Biden welcomed Olaf Scholz on his first official visit to the White House and, despite the fact our Chancellor refused to make clear that Nord Stream 2 would be cancelled if Russia invaded Ukraine, called Germany a “reliable partner” and did his best to keep his frustration in check.

It was sensible, grown-up politics: instead of trying to strongman Scholz with a public shaming, Biden worked behind closed doors to get him on side. Most of Germany’s allies, despite increasing exasperation with our shilly-shallying, did likewise.

‘Man of the hour’

This approach paid off: in his Zeitenwende speech in early March, Scholz appeared very much the man of hour, cementing the impression I and many others have of him as someone who, while not wholly devoid of dogmatism, is nonetheless willing to change positions in the face of good arguments. Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine led him to reassess his stance to date, find it wanting, and correct it accordingly.

His honesty and solemn undertaking were rewarded with plaudits from our allies – and with an unexpected bounce in popularity among voters who, it turns out, had also been doing some thinking and had overcome their long-held distaste for military matters.

READ ALSO: Zeitenwende: How war in Ukraine has sparked a historic shift in Germany

Yet it’s been downhill from there on in. Essentially, Scholz’ speech wrote a hefty cheque that his actions since have not cashed. In the far-reaching nature of the foreign and defence policy shift he announced, Scholz displayed the strong leadership which he prides himself on delivering, only to then lose the courage of his own convictions.

Instead of using the momentum his volte face gave him to grasp the bull by the horns, he shrank back from any immediate measures which might prove too radical: no heavy weapons for the Ukraine; no embargo on Russian gas; not even any further major speeches. Yes, Germany has changed its stance and yes, Germany is supplying Ukrainian forces with much-needed material. Yet the overall impression – not just among Ukrainians, but among our allies and even the general public – is that it is still too little, too late and that, as ever, Germany is reacting in a sluggishly over-bureaucratic manner. The result is widespread dissatisfaction with Scholz’ government and, naturally, with Scholz himself.

In Scholz’ inability to make good on his pledge, there are three factors at play. One of them is beyond his control; the other two are of his own making.

READ ALSO: OPINION: How many massacres will it take before Germany turns off Russian gas?

Inherited problems

Firstly, Scholz is hamstrung by circumstances. Even those of us in favour of supplying heavy weapons to the Ukraine have to accept the damning assessment of every informed professional who has examined the Bundeswehr in recent years: our own forces are operating on a bare minimum. This severely limits what we can offer. And this inability to defend even ourselves, let alone our European allies, has been twenty years in the making. The same is true of Russian gas: while I argue for an immediate embargo, I do not deny that this would have serious effects on our economy and society – and that, here too, there is no magic wand that can be waved over two decades of criminally negligent energy policy.

Olaf Scholz and Angela Merkel

Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) hands flowers to former chancellor Angela Merkel as she leaves office. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Michael Kappeler

This is the situation we are now in. How we got here, however, throws an unflattering light on Scholz, who was, until he became Chancellor, Finance Minister in yet another Merkel administration which allowed defence budgets to remain below par, Bundeswehr procurement to go to pot, and our dependency on Russian gas to go from around 40 percent to 55 percent.

This is the second factor in Scholz’ current failure: although he has, commendably, identified past mistakes and promised a different approach, he is still proving unable to surmount his own habits and instincts. Even where other options would now be open, Scholz is still applying the methods of the Merkel years – delaying, delegating down to committees, and hoping problems solve themselves – in circumstances which he himself has publicly identified as radically different.

READ ALSO: ‘Too little, too late’: Scholz under fire for inaction on Ukraine

Here, the issue with the Marder IFVs is symptomatic: Rheinmetall has literally dozens of these armed people carriers sitting around which could be refurbished at relatively short notice, either to be sent directly to Ukrainian forces or cascaded down to the Bundeswehr to replace any supplied to Kyiv.

Scholz is sticking to the unconvincing line that Ukrainian soldiers couldn’t be trained to use them in time – in spite of the obvious fact that the country’s forces have already lasted longer than anyone thought they would and that the war is now clearly going to drag on. Zeitenwende politics this is not. I’m not alone in expecting proactive executive action here: Scholz has a problem when MPs in his own coalition generally well-disposed towards him such as Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmerman repeatedly take to the airwaves to denounce his “prevarication”.

No sign of a Zeitenwende

And that is the third factor at play here. Regardless of actions taken or not taken, in stylistic terms, Scholz is not living up to his own hype. This is what, in my view, is denting his popularity the most. No one is expecting miracles, but having come to power implicitly promising to explain and justify his policies more than his predecessor Angela Merkel – who preferred to preside, sphynx-like, over proceedings – Scholz has now, after a promisingly communicative start, retreated back into the Chancellery. His silence, both on the Ukraine and on other pressing issues (especially Covid policy) is leaving too much room for interpretation – and dissatisfaction.

German tanks at a military training ground in Saxony-Anhalt

German tanks at a military training ground in Saxony-Anhalt. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert

No doubt, Scholz is hoping to himself “do a Merkel”, keeping a low profile and becoming entrenched to the point where Germans cannot imagine life without him and so eventually come to adulate him. Times have changed, though – and as the Chancellor who coined the term Zeitenwende (“change in times” or “turning point”), nobody should be more aware of that than Olaf Scholz.

Germans are changing with the times, and now expect more than aloof Merkel-style management of our various national weaknesses: they want the sustained, systemic change Olaf Scholz said he stood for. And the change needs to start (or perhaps: start again) at the top with him. Scholz can no longer count on the benefit of the doubt.

READ ALSO: OPINION: Germany has been forced to learn the lessons from its post-war pacifism

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Why the Greens are the real winners of Germany’s state elections

German state elections don't tell us everything about the public mood, but the past few votes have revealed some pretty clear winners and losers. While support for the SPD is flagging, the Greens are growing in stature by the day, writes Brian Melican.

Why the Greens are the real winners of Germany's state elections

It’s one of the peculiarities of Germany’s federal system that we’re almost never more than six months away from an election being held somewhere. Alongside the national elections (Bundestagswahl) usually every four years, each of the 16 states also hold ballots (Landtagswahl) on varying cycles; then there are local and mayoral elections, too. As such, rolling campaigning and more-or-less continuous election analysis are a part of life here: “What does Election X say about Government Y?” is a question you will always hear being asked somewhere.

Nevertheless, regional elections have a habit of clustering – and generally come at points when national governments would rather not have people poring over electoral data. And this year, after barely six months in office, Olaf Scholz’ novel tri-partite traffic-light coalition has already been faced with three regional elections – in Saarland (27th March), last week in Schleswig-Holstein (8th May), and yesterday in North-Rhine Westphalia (15th May). On a regional level, the popularity of the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) has already been thoroughly tested. 

Understanding state elections

The key thing to remember about German regional elections are that they both are and aren’t about national politics. Firstly, here’s how they aren’t. At a basic level, these regional elections are simply about voters choosing a government to deal with state-level remits (mainly health, education, and housing). They will vote first and foremost on these issues.

Personality politics are also important: long-serving German state premiers frequently garner the unofficial honorific Landesvater or Landesmutter –  literally: ‘father/mother of the state’ – and benefit from high personal approval ratings, allowing them to withstand changes in mood at national level. So it is by no means infrequent for voters to return completely different parties in regional than at national elections. By way of example, while Olaf Scholz, SPD, remained a popular Landesvater figure in Hamburg, Merkel’s CDU still won more Hamburg votes at national elections.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Why Sunday’s state parliament vote in NRW is important for German politics

Then again, regional elections also are about national politics. That’s because they never take place in a vacuum (except for in Bavaria, of course, where everyone always votes CSU). Even the most beloved of state premiers faces an uphill struggle if their party is currently making a hash of things in Berlin. What is more, the larger and the more representative the Bundesland, the more results of its elections can show swings in voter mood which may be of national relevance.

The Greens’ slow ascent from their mid-2000s funk to their current swagger began in Baden-Württemberg: winning control of this state populated by 11 million people and many of Germany’s top industrialists showed that voters trusted them to be part of a government. That set the ball rolling and by the time of last year’s national election, the Greens were already in power in half of federal states. Incidentally, it is often overlooked that state governments make up the Bundesrat, the second chamber of parliament, which can accept or refuse laws made by the Bundestag. So shifts in power here can be of national relevance.

This dichotomy has the predictable effect that, in the aftermath of every Landtagswahl, the losing parties usually claim that it was simply a regional ballot with nothing to say about national politics while the winning parties play up the significance at federal level.

Olaf Scholz and Thomas Kutschaty

Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) congratulates Thomas Kutschaty, SPD candidate in North Rhine-Westphalia, after the party wins 26.7 percent of the vote. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

An SPD disaster 

This is why it is very bad news for Olaf Scholz and the SPD that their only victory in spring 2022’s three Landtagswahlen was in dinky little Saarland, a state whose population is smaller than that of a major city like Cologne and whose local politics are so marked by rivalries and infighting as to have little-to-no relevance nationally. Despite winning an absolute majority in the regional parliament at Saarbrücken (a rare feat in proportional representation), there was no way the SPD could claim a national bearing – and, to its credit, didn’t try to do so either.

In Schleswig-Holstein, the SPD wasn’t expected to unseat the CDU’s Daniel Günther, a likeable and well-liked premier coming to the end of five years at the helm of a surprisingly successful Jamaica coalition with the Greens and the FDP. Here, too, the national relevance was relatively low: Schleswig-Holstein has only 3 million inhabitants and few large towns and cities. Nevertheless, losing over half its seats while the Greens and CDU gained by the same amount was not a good result for the SPD.

What was disastrous, however, was last night’s result in North-Rhine Westphalia. With a population the size of the neighbouring Netherlands (17 million) and everything from Germany’s largest urban conurbation down to isolated mountain regions, NRW is often considered a microcosm of the country as a whole. As something of a swing state, parties which succeed here often go on to win the next national election (if they aren’t already in government).


What is more, unlike in Schleswig-Holstein, NRW was the SDP’s to win. Until last year, its premier was the luckless Armin Laschet (remember him?), who plumbed popularity depths in his failed bid to become Chancellor. He then left a badly-damaged CDU-FDP administration to Hendrik Wüst, a successor whose profile, if he had one at all, was defined by various low-level corruption scandals (including a regrettable incident where he sold slots with the then-NRW premier, Jürgen Rüttgers, to high-paying commercial lobbyists…).

Hendrik Wüst (CDU)

Re-elected NRW state premier Hendrik Wüst (CDU) celebrates his victory. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Rolf Vennenbernd

Even if Wüst proved to be an unexpectedly good campaigner and the SPD’s Thomas Kutschaty remained oddly faceless, the fact that Olaf Scholz himself got involved and that the SPD still ended up with its worst showing in NRW ever is nothing less than a serious defeat for both the Chancellor and his party – one which, in my view, underlines how Scholz has not yet lived up to expectations.

Nevertheless, he is in luck. Firstly, the electoral cycle means that this upset is occurring at the beginning of his term; there will be time to recover. Secondly, although Wüst gets first crack at forming a government, the Greens are his only real potential partner – and will take a lot of courting. NRW Greens are on the more left-wing end of the spectrum and will play the field, potentially trying to usher in a mini traffic-light coalition in Düsseldorf if it looks feasible later.

READ ALSO: OPINION: Scholz is already out of step with Germany – it’s time for a change of course

Growing support for Greens

So after the post-Merkel rout, the CDU has scored an important and much-needed victory, but harnessing it to get momentum nationally may yet prove difficult. Indeed, it’s the Greens who have come out of the last two weekends with a new swing in their step. Following a disappointing national election last year, they have once again hit their stride, due in no small part to the Ukraine reminding voters of why renewable energy is important on the one hand and the impressive figures cut by Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock in government on the other.

For the FDP, things are not looking so good. Despite negotiating a disproportionately high amount of their manifesto into last year’s agreement, they are suffering the fate of many a junior coalition partner: a lack of profile. On strictly regional terms, they lost votes to the popular Daniel Günther in Schleswig-Holstein (perhaps unavoidably, despite a good record as part of his coalition) and to the not-yet-popular Hendrik Wüst (following lacklustre performance in government in Düsseldorf).

Greens party posters NRW

Posters featuring Greens candidate Mona Neubaur highlight the link between fossil fuels and Russia’s authoritarian leadership. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Roberto Pfeil

Worryingly for Christian Lindner, however, this may be harbinger of history repeating itself. Essentially, FDP voters tend to get enthusiastic for a business-friendly go-getter type who promises to lower taxes and slash regulation, only to later turn their back on him when, once part of a coalition government, he proves unable to deliver the small-state free-for-all promised. That’s what happened to Guido Westerwelle in the 2009-2013 administration, in any case.

There is, however, one bit of unadulterated good news for all parties and indeed our country as a whole: the AfD lost vote share everywhere. The populist outfit didn’t even make it into parliament in Schleswig-Holstein and only just scraped in in NRW. It would seem that, in times of crisis, voters don’t want to add to the list of potential disasters by putting populists anywhere near power. This is a hypothesis we’ll be able to test in just under six months’ time, by the way, when Lower-Saxony goes to the polls on 9th October.